Erik Kaiel’s company – Arch 8 Dancers – have hit Dance Umbrella 2016 with a programme of three contrasting works aimed at younger audiences. Tetris – the first of the three – encompasses inspirations including the eponymous computer game, playground games and the way that kids explore the limits of their bodies.

Whilst the themes outlined in the programme are all present to some degree, the influence of the nostalgic computer game is most evident in Kaiel’s movement language. Dancers perform gestural sequences that allude to constructing boxes and roll around slotting into the negative space around each other’s bodies, forming occasionally comical configurations. Even their brightly coloured costumes remind us of Tetris’ brightly coloured geometric blocks. Visually, Tetris is reminiscent of the work of Austrian company Cie. Willi Dorner, whose various works – including the photobook Bodies in Urban Spaces – invite audiences to see everyday life in a different way, by stacking and folding dancers into the nooks and crannies of architectural spaces, again in a Tetris-like fashion. Whilst Kaiel’s movement exploration is interesting from a choreographic point of view, it is questionable how engaging it is for children to observe the physical investigation of a movement concept with little expression from the performers, who in this section are too robotic and mechanical to embody carefree childlike exploration. Yet one cannot deny that the extreme physical abilities of the performers amaze the younger audience members, one young child exclaiming “WOW!” at one dancer’s graceful backflips.

However, as the piece develops, the performers become more theatrically motivated, moving away from their roles as inanimate building blocks, expressive and engagingly interacting with their young audience. A stand out sequence is when the dancers catapult themselves (which is exciting, yet also prompts concern that some children may get trampled) into the audience, offering Rubik’s cubes to lucky individuals. As the children manipulate the multi-coloured cubes, the dancers humorously respond as if being controlled by a remote, passing the power to the spectators and involving them in the show. The fourth wall is broken even further when the performers invite children and adults alike on stage to join in the fun, including activities such as body surfing, running around, and forming various constructions with their bodies. Over time, the roles reverse to such an extent that the performance concludes with the dancers sat in the auditorium, applauding the audience who are now leading their own physical explorations onstage.

It’s inventive. It’s engaging. It’s impressive. Tetris may begin mechanically, yet overall it is a perfect example of how dance can be used to engage and entertain younger audiences – and their parents – without being patronising or over-simplistic.

Tetris is being performed in various venues across London until October 22 as part of Dance Umbrella Festival 2016.

Photo: Erik Korzo